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The writers who came to play

Escaping the cold of England for a cricket tour and a wedding celebration in India: capital idea, no?

Nicholas Hogg
Nicholas Hogg
Author Nicholas Hogg bowls to a boy in Kathiawada, February 2015

Child's play: the writer sends one down in Kathiwada  •  Daniel Rosenthal

When the Authors Cricket Club toured India in 2013 we lost every game. That chastening itinerary included fixtures against budding academy sides, IPL tryouts, and, as ridiculous as it seems, a match against a Rajasthan Royals XI led by former India Test bowler Sreesanth.
This time, surely, we would fare better. Now veterans of two subcontinental tours - last winter we toured Sri Lanka, and even scraped a win - we were ready to come back victorious. Well, with at least one victory. A team of middle-aged writers with an average age the wrong side of 40. A team whose preparation for five games in six days involved either a couple of nets followed by a couple of pints, or no nets at all - followed by a couple of pints.
Unlike the 2013 India campaign, in which half the side walked off a plane and directly onto a sun-baked wicket at Bombay Gymkhana, the gentler 2015 itinerary included two days' "acclimatisation" at an Indian wedding. This process involved toasting the dazzling bride and groom with glasses of champagne while feasting on a mouth-watering array of food. And watching India beat Pakistan on a big screen erected behind one of the happy couple's many marriage ceremonies. That cricket played a crucial part in a wedding was yet more confirmation of what passion we were up against.
By match day we were cured of jet-lag but nursing hangovers and anxieties about the opposition. Walking through the gates onto the Oval Maidan we came across the unlikely sight of two stocky English schoolboys in a net. Their forward-thinking cricket master had despatched them from a wintry Somerset to a humid Mumbai for a ten-day training course in how to play spin. They woke early, padded up, and then faced hours of bowling from talented young spinners. Proficient as the boys were, occasionally clearing long-on and endangering passers-by, they were also stumped and castled. And this was after days of practice.
Then our opposition arrived. Worryingly, and pessimistically expected, they were young and athletic. It didn't help to hear that Sachin's son was playing on the next pitch, or that we lost the toss, which meant the afternoon fielding duties fell to the Authors. Fittingly, as the Noel Coward ditty goes: only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
Early wickets from Charlie Campbell and myself gave us breakthrough start, and a mean spell from Tom Holland applied the tourniquet. Then that enemy of the tourist in India struck. We may have been in Mumbai, but Delhi Belly knew where to find us. From running in to bowl I was running off the field, out of the park, and skittering along a crowded street in spikes and full whites looking for a "rest room".
I was hardly the first foreign cricketer here to make the dysentery dash. On the 1963-64 England tour of India, Henry Blofeld nearly made the Test XI when "a virulent gastric bug swept through the side" and they were desperate for players. The team had been so depleted that Kripal Singh, India's 12th man, had fielded for England.
Unlike Micky Stewart in 1964, I didn't have to discharge myself from hospital to make it back on to the pitch - just in time to see the usually reliable offspinner Ollie Craske suffer not from that English stomach killer, but the cricket demon known as the yips. Ollie, who had garnered instant off-pitch respect when introduced as a writer working on the biography of Indian sitar legend Ravi Shankar, struggled to find the track, let alone the stumps. Once the prolonged over was finished, Ollie enquired to Campbell as to whether he'd now get a mention in his forthcoming book on captaining amateur cricket teams. "Not even close," informed Charlie, a skipper who had been unfortunate enough to once preside over a 22-ball overathon.
Still, despite the unhealthy extras, we kept the total down, and had a real chance of that fabled first win. Our opener, Richard Beard, a batter whose Eoin Morgan-esque run of poor scores in Sri Lanka had threatened the entire squad's morale, started the tour as he would go on. A genuine opener's half-century, seeing off the quicks, then accelerating the run rate against the change bowling, keeping us in the game until the final over.
Close but no cigar. We lost by a handful of runs, and that win still eluded us. The umpire, a man of Author's XI vintage himself, sagely remarked that we lost because of our "age". Still, we had our best chance of victory the following day - a game against the Cricket Club of India Over-40s at the Brabourne Stadium, venue of England's 1964 battling draw, a depleted XI described by Wisden as a team that had "risen so superior to the depressing difficulties".
So, a win? A valiant fight for victory?
In the lobby of the CCI stands a gleaming silver replica of the Ranji Trophy. That afternoon, in the centre of the Brabourne Stadium, stood a genuine Ranji Trophy player, clipping an effortless 80-odd runs to all corners. His spinning wagon wheel of shots at least gave us the opportunity to take in views of this iconic ground. And in the post-match folklore it would transpire that any of the three wickets taken - once the Ranji pro had retired - were that of the Ranji pro.
It seems a "veteran" Indian cricketer doesn't fit the description of a "veteran" English cricketer. Their oldest player was a sprightly bowler who would bring down the Authors' average age a few years. And despite another fine fifty from Richard Beard, the shot of the tour from James Holland, and a lively, Twitter-parody-account-inducing performance from Jonathan Wilson, our first-innings total was never enough. It's worth noting that in the dismantling of our target only one delivery - a wide - went through to our keeper, Daniel Rosenthal, and when Matt Thacker bowled a dot-ball leggie, he was cheered.
Determined to make a better fist of the game under lights the following evening, I jumped in a taxi and headed to the Sachin Tendulkar-endorsed Smaaash bar in Lower Parel. The low-lit interior may look and feel like a nightclub, and alcohol is indeed served. Not that you'd want a beer before stepping into the batting simulators where bowlers such as Brett Lee loom from the big screens at the end of the nets. From pixels to actual deliveries, pinged from a bowling machine synced to fire balls through a hole in the screen, each shot is then replayed - with computer graphic fielders, and wry commentary from none other than Mike Atherton. Surprisingly, I despatched Murali and Warne, but when the operator upped the level to Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar I only knew where that white smear was when my stumps rattled.
Still, batting under lights that evening at the Air India ground, facing a white ball on a black sightscreen, was easier than digging out an Akram yorker. Considering children's author Joe Craig hit his very first ball for six, you'd have thought he had also been netting at Smaaash. Well, until the customary Authors collapse. This brought Craske to the crease, who exorcised his yips with a fine 49 not out to raise us to a respectable 236 off 30 overs.
No, we didn't win. And this loss hurt. The team threw their bodies around the field in a brave effort to defend our score. When the winning runs were struck from the penultimate over it was nearly midnight. We'd been in the game, and then blown it. It was a long and beerless journey back to the hotel, with only two matches left to get that W.
Rest day was a flight to Ahmedabad and a bus ride to Kathiwada, spartan recovery - despite the regal welcome of our host - before "tennis ball" cricket against a local village team. "Tennis ball" cricket, we chuckled. This would be easy. Who can't hit a tennis ball?
We can't, it appears. Well, not as spectacularly as the locals, who expelled ball after ball into the trees and onto the road, entertaining the school kids who'd come to watch this "England" team play their village - the real England team had been hammered by New Zealand that morning, so we were keeping tradition.
Only on my last day, aching and sore after consecutive beatings, in the peaceful lull of the morning before the final slaughter, would there be a small and personal victory.
Because lethal bears and leopards roam the Kathiwada hills, trek guides walk with loaded bows. Before a team hike to a nearby waterfall, our security guard showed the kitchen staff how to shoot an arrow. This was my moment. I was a boy from Nottingham obsessed with Robin Hood. I had taken one wicket all tour and hadn't swung the ball. But I did pull back that bow and drill three arrows into a tree trunk - which was about 22 yards away - fetching a round of applause from the gathered crowd, the same men who had watched us limp to defeat against a rubber ball.
Ultimately the tour did have a victory. Many. Not just the winning chance of attending a grand Indian wedding, or playing at an iconic Test ground, or gasping at the audacious bat-swinging of the Kathiwada boys, but the fact that we'd once again flown from the damp and dark depths of an English winter to play cricket in the sun, win or lose.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky, was nominated for the IMPAC literary award. He tweets here